Ever imagined coming face-to-face with sharks? City Times takes you deep into the cool waters of Dubai Aquarium for a swim-session with these misunderstood predators
I always found it slightly odd that scientists knew more about the far reaches of outer space than they did about our very own oceans. We can map out the complexities of the solar system yet still cannot venture into the deep abyss of the aquatic world. But it is exactly this mystery that keeps us fascinated with the deep, and with it all its great inhabitants that have swam with the currents since the age of the dinosaurs.
No creature has tantalised and terrified us more than the shark, a species that remains misunderstood in our imaginations and tentative nightmares. But why all the bad rap? Is Steven Spielberg to blame for his classic rendition of a bloodthirsty monster on the hunt for pubescent teens? Yes, he may have played a role in instilling entrenching fear of these magnificent killers in our minds, but our own ignorance is mostly to blame.
The first time I saw the shark-filled aquarium at Dubai Mall, I was impressed by its gargantuan size and scale. Did I ever imagine myself swimming inside the world’s largest tank: absolutely not. But after conquering every other death-defying stunt the city had to offer, I figured a trip into the “deep” was due.
Swimming with the sharks is a new programme offered by the Dubai Aquarium, giving first-time divers a chance to experience up-close encounters with these incredibly beautiful creatures. Scuba diving has always been intimidating in my mind. There is something about being underwater that leaves us feeling so vulnerable and essentially handicapped. But subsequently, it is also one of the most gratifying adventures you can take part in.
After arriving at the Al Boom Diving Center in Jumeirah, I went through an instructional video explaining all the procedures and protocol involved with diving and safety, but I found myself more amused by the terrible actors in the film than with the dive itself. Since I had no scuba certification, I would have to undergo preliminary training before taking on the big tank. And once the equipment was strapped to my back and my legs lay dangling in the outdoor swimming pool, I realised only then that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
The funny part about experiencing new things is that we can sometimes gauge our own personal response and competency. But breathing underwater (barring all amateur snorkelling) is something that I’ve never done, and something that I couldn’t really be prepared for. Taking my first deep breath underwater felt surreal and somewhat exhilarating. I learned the first rules of diving: respect your environment and never panic. I forgot the former and acted on the latter.
After a few hours of controlled breathing exercises and learning surprisingly useful underwater hand signals, I was ready to escape my pool confinement and take on some bigger fish; quite literally.
The journey behind-the-scenes at the Dubai Mall Aquarium is like venturing onto a different planet. While rows of shops and crowds bustle outside the thick acrylic glass, inside, teams of aquatic specialists handle the infinite amount of tasks required for maintaining the comfort and stability of the artificial environment. There are, after all, more than 30,000 fish and wildlife to look after.
On any other day, I would be out in the crowd marvelling at the divers who seamlessly swim amongst the ocean’s most feared creatures. But now I was the one donning the airtight suit that had me feeling more like a show attraction than a journalist on a mission of discovery.
After slowly submersing myself in the cold waters of the tank, it quickly became apparent to me that I could never be the main attraction to this unbelievable event; the aquarium already handled the attention flawlessly. Standing at the very bottom surrounded by fibreglass coral rocks and schools of groupers, I was definitely out of my element.
Outside the viewing panel, I could see patrons snapping pictures of me in complete awe and fascination. In truth, I felt the same way from inside. The sheer size and complexity of the aquarium cannot truly be appreciated unless you’re in the divers perspective. I could have very well been in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef, because I could see giant sharks roaming only inches away from me.
The only shark encounter I’d ever had in my life consisted of sitting in a metal cage off the hull of a boat in Hawaii, shucking pieces of dead fish out of cage bars - it wasn’t exactly a Hallmark moment. But this experience was quite different for obvious reasons, actually swimming in open water with them face-to-fin.
There are many emotions that could describe the intense feeling of being surrounded by a group of giant sharks smiling at you with razor-like teeth, but it would be a blatant lie to say that fear wasn’t one of them. That’s what makes the Dubai Aquarium’s diving programme so genius, because it forces us to overcome all the pre-conceived notions we carry towards the shark. You’ll quickly realise that these are not in fact bloodthirsty killers but rather gentle giants intent on the survival of their species. Are they intimidating? Of course. But nothing quite compares to swimming alongside them in their own elements.
We all have childhood fantasies; it’s what makes our youth bearable. But the idea of stepping outside of our comfort zones and into the unknown waters of our fantasies and nightmares is what makes life truly exciting. This isn’t just another story; it’s a shark tale.
Paul Hamilton, head curator of Dubai Aquarium, helped develop the programme with the intention of dispelling the bad reputation that sharks have gained over the years through media and films.
“Giving people a first-hand experience helps change public perception,” he said. “People come to terms that they [sharks] are not the machines they’re made out to be.”
With 220 species and 30,000 fish being hosted inside the 10 million litre oceanarium, the aquarium is the ‘biggest body of water being helped up on planet earth’. The aquarium is, in fact, sitting on columns rather than foundation. This is, after all, a shopping mall and there are retailers located directly below the tank.
Conservation is at the heart of the diving project, and Hamilton works endlessly to educate the public about protecting oceans and sea life.
“I don’t like being doom and gloom about it because if you pass on messages of sustainability, people can work on it individually,” he said.
“I meet so many people that have no idea what’s inside the sea. It’s something they can’t comprehend because all they see is the surface. To be able to show random people something as magnificent as the ocean is amazing.”
In his efforts to bring the shark back into our comfort psyche, Hamilton wants the public to recognise the vulnerability of the sharks themselves. While many of us carry a soft spot for cute and cuddly creatures like dolphins and turtles, the shark family remains a threatened species worldwide.
Cost for Non-Certified divers: Dhs825 - inclusive of gear and introductory training
For certified divers: Dhs625
To book a dive contact Al Boom Diving Club: 04-3422993 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org